The Discernment Process: Finding Direction in the Dark

It’s hard to know what you don’t know. Plenty of people can tell you how to do literature searches or how to write strong applications for research experiences or industry internships—but what if you don’t know where to begin, or what your interests are?

At seventeen and eighteen, many of us feel woefully under-prepared for these kinds of decisions, and I’m told that it doesn’t get much easier after this either. Change is scary, but you can cope with it by learning as much about new situations as possible. There’s comfort in knowledge.

But how do you search for what to search for? From my experience, this kind of learning comes through osmosis. I recommend that you surround yourself with a diverse crowd—people from all walks of life, with a variety of interests, career paths, and varied goals—you’ll start picking up on the possibilities out there for you.

There are some things we can just feel out for ourselves: words such as internship just buzz in our ears. Other things, like Ph.D. and undergraduate research may be more nebulous. No one in my family has ever attempted a graduate degree like that, and coming into college, I genuinely had no real idea of what a graduate degree entailed.

Through a two-week internship (SIMS) here at UCSB, I was introduced to a passionate group of friends and a network of industry professionals, academic researchers, and staff willing to share their career paths with me. That two-week research experience gave me a strong foundation, and the diverse network of support I wanted, on which to build my freshman year.

SIMS 2014

Over the course of this year, I’ve spoken with these professional and academics about their career trajectories, decisions, and interests. All the while, I imagined myself in their shoes—whether it was making hair gels and organic LED screens in industry, or fabricating nanoscale photovoltaic devices and modeling hydrophobic molecular interactions in academia.

Without really trying, I had started the discernment process.

Only a quarter in to my freshman year, I had more questions than I had on the first day. But more importantly, I knew where to take my questions, and that these questions were educated by others’ experiences. These questions I had, and those I still have, are directed toward figuring out my own path:

Will I pursue a PhD. or a career in industry—or both? Even within those options, there’s a thousand paths to take, and I won’t know which is for me until I’ve tried.

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